Tax tricks: How an $8.5M Lightning contract keeping Steven Stamkos in Tampa is better than $10.5M to leave

The next deal for Steven Stamkos, who turns 26 on Feb. 7, is likely to cover most of his prime years.
The next deal for Steven Stamkos, who turns 26 on Feb. 7, is likely to cover most of his prime years.
Published Jan. 26, 2016

TAMPA — When Canada's Sportsnet reported Saturday that the Lightning had offered captain Steven Stamkos an eight-year, $68 million deal, a popular reaction from fans and pundits was, "That's it?"

After all, if accurate, the $8.5 million annual average ($1 million more than his current salary) would put Stamkos eighth in the league, shy of the $10 million that Kings star Anze Kopitar signed for this month, and $2 million less than the supposed benchmark of the $10.5 million each for Blackhawks stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.

Was it a lowball offer from the Lightning? Not so fast. The Tampa Bay Times dug deeper into the numbers, with the help of nationally renowned sports tax guru Robert Raiola, revealing potential x-factors: no state income taxes in Florida and the Lightning's ability to guarantee an eighth year on the contract. Raiola calculated that if Stamkos takes $8.5 million with the Lightning, it would net almost the same annually as $10 million in New York, presuming he'd be a New York City resident (see chart). He'd net roughly $500,000 less annually than $10 million deals in St. Louis or Detroit, due to city and state taxes, but take in more money over the length of his contract.

In Toronto, Stamkos' hometown, there's a proposed 53.53 percent federal/provincial tax if he's a Canadian resident. So even if the Maple Leafs offer $10 million annually, Stamkos would net $7 million less total over the length of the deal compared one at $8.5 million annually in Tampa Bay, partly thanks to an eighth year. Stamkos would even make just $1.4 million less total than Kopitar over his eight-year deal with the Kings, assuming Kopitar is a California resident.

There's still no guarantee Stamkos signs with Tampa Bay, and keep in mind that reported $8.5 million annual average hasn't been confirmed by either the Lightning or Stamkos' agents at Newport Sports, who continue their media blackout. It could be just an initial offer in prolonged negotiations.

But while there are many factors that go into this decision, there's no question the Lightning will be selling the fact that Florida has no state income tax as part of its pitch to keep the All-Star center.

Tampa Bay has done so in the past with free agents like Ryan Callahan, and knowing the salary cap crunch it'll have in coming years, every dollar will count.

"In my mind it's a factor you always look at," said Callahan's agent, Steven Bartlett. "I know some of the big stars get hung up on the number because it's almost an egotistical thing — and I'm not saying it's this way with Stamkos. I'm just saying a guy feels like, 'He gets 10 (million), I need 10 (million). I need nine just to validate.' But if you're smart you realize, 'I have to run the calculation.' It isn't always just the number that's thrown out there that's the real number.

"And, believe me, the teams that have the advantage are more than willing to point that out to you, too."

When Callahan was due to be an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2014, Bartlett knew the former Rangers captain would have several options.

Bartlett, who has an accounting background, ran the numbers of what Callahan would net in several different cities, including Tampa Bay and New York. He showed the numbers to Callahan, who signed a six-year, $38.5 million deal a few days before becoming an unrestricted free agent, Bartlett noting it was less than what some speculated he requested from New York.

How a player gets paid

NHL players, paid in U.S. dollars, receive checks every two weeks from the start of the season to the end, broken down into a daily rate for the 186 days on the league calendar.

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Each player contributes to an escrow, the percentage varying by quarter, with the most recent 18 percent. After that is taken off the gross pay, players pay agent fees and deductions for a "jock tax," where athletes pay the tax in road cities on days they play, practice or stay there.

But it is the state taxes that can make a "big difference," according to Raiola, a senior manager at O'Connor Davies LLP in the Northeast, who has professional sports clients throughout the country.

The top U.S. Federal tax rate is 39.6 percent, Raiola said. The state rates fluctuate significantly in top tax rates, from 13.3 percent in California (Sharks, Kings, Ducks) and 8.82 in New York to 3.75 in Illinois. Florida, Texas and Tennessee are the only states with NHL teams that don't have state income taxes; Washington D.C. doesn't tax non-residents.

But in Toronto, the combined provincial and federal tax rate is expected to rise to 53.53 percent.

"I won't say (Stamkos) can't go to Toronto," Raiola said. "But if he does, he'll be giving up a lot of money."

In fairness, there are more marketing/endorsement opportunities in cities like Toronto, where Stamkos would be a king, or New York, letting star players cash in.

But for the projections for this story, Raiola broke down only the contracts: He took the gross amount ($8.5 million or $10 million), deducting the varying state income taxes, as well as using a flat agent rate of four percent and average "jock tax" of 7 percent on some road games. Escrow contributions, which vary in percentage by quarter, with portions returned to each player after the season, were not included in our calculations.

Will he stay?

The Sportsnet report, by well-respected national writer Elliotte Friedman, sparked a significant reaction from Lightning fans, who have been eager for the team to lock up Stamkos long-term.

Stamkos could sense that in conversations at Sunday's Lightning family carnival at Amalie Arena.

"It was more like, 'Please stay,' " Stamkos said, smiling.

Stamkos has maintained he wants to stay in Tampa Bay, where he has grown from an 18-year-old No. 1 draft pick in 2008 to the face of the franchise. A lot will likely go into this decision, from his chances of winning a Stanley Cup here to how he's being used to, of course, the money.

Stamkos is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent July 1, where some teams might be willing to pay more annually than the Lightning — Tampa Bay has Victor Hedman, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Ben Bishop due new deals after next season, and Nikita Kucherov is a restricted free agent this summer. There's still time, as Stamkos has a no-move clause, making it unlikely he's dealt before the Feb. 29 trade deadline. A no-move clause could also be included in Stamkos' next deal with Tampa Bay. If he were traded from Tampa Bay, he would lose any tax benefits from living in Florida.

Stamkos said when he signed his current deal, a five-year, $37.5 million pact as a restricted free agent in 2011, state taxes weren't really a factor. Stamkos said he and his agents haven't yet had in-depth conversations about how it may impact a deal now.

"But," Stamkos says," It's obviously a perk of playing in Florida."

Contact Joe Smith at Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.